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Luxembourg: culture in the countryside

Luxembourg: culture in the countryside

Georges Rouzeau - 2011-01-10

This forgotten city in the country, leafy and romantic with its rivers and countless remnants of fortifications, easily merits a weekend.

Luxembourg, a city in the countryside
More than a stronghold of high finance, the capital of the Duchy of Luxembourg is a peaceful little provincial city set in the countryside.
 
Indeed, Luxembourg’s charm stems from its gardens, parks, military ruins and amazing topography. Built on a rocky plateau punctuated by ravines and bridges, the city boasts an irresistible natural setting. At the bottom of the valley, to the north and south, lazily wind two fairytale rivers, the Pétrusse and the Alzette. Also striking is the predominance of military architecture: for centuries in Luxembourg, ramparts and military buildings were erected to hold at bay – with varying degrees of success – the Spanish, French, Austrians and Prussians. Indeed, in 1867, when the Prussians departed, fortifications outnumbered civilian buildings!
 
The romantic character of the place was not lost on Victor Hugo, who sketched it in ink during his exile. There is, in fact, nothing natural about its picturesque quality: in the late 19th century, Luxembourg called on a French landscape architect, Édouard André, to “demilitarise” the city by creating parks and gardens. He certainly pulled it off: all the Luxembourgers or foreigners in exile that you meet here are full of praise for their environment. A city in the country is something you can’t put a price on! Actually you can – in the city centre the rents are on a par with those in Paris… But otherwise, thanks to its low VAT, the prices (particularly in restaurants) are not at all excessive.
 
The old town
The size of a pocket handkerchief, the old town can be explored on foot in half a day, starting from the Place d’Armes. Its charm stems from its architectural eclecticism, a blend of rare Renaissance façades and neo-Gothic palaces. You can easily combine tours with shopping, particularly in the main shopping and pedestrian streets such as rue du Curé, rue des Capucins and Grand’ Rue.
 
The district’s star attraction is, of course, the Grand-DucalPalace, where many of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg’s official activities continue to take place. The left wing – the oldest one (16th century) – is undoubtedly the most beautiful, with its turrets and geometric abstract ornamentations emblematic of the Spanish Netherlands. The building furthest to the right, of neo-Gothic and neo-Classical style, houses the seat of Parliament and its sixty members. With a little patience, you may well catch sight of the Grand Duke, sitting in the back of his Daimler.
 
Those with inquisitive minds can visit the Luxembourg City History Museum. Of remarkable design, this place combines several old houses behind an immense glass façade. The city’s history is related with the aid of old documents (manuscripts, seals, weapons, helmets) and new techniques. One interesting feature: the museum has a 60 m2 lift which passes through almost the entire depth of the rocky plateau as far as the lower town, the Grund.
 
We fell in love with the historic cradle of the city of Luxembourg, located around the National Museum of History and Art at the edge of the rocky plateau, to the east. The museum forecourt is none other than the old fish market, once the crossroads of two Roman trade routes, Paris-Trier and Metz-Aachen. Extended, redeveloped and modernised in recent years, the National Museum of History and Art is surprising for the pleasantness of its exhibition space design and the quality of its collections, which go from prehistory to Picasso via Luxembourg painting of the 19th century.
 
All the streets around the museum are worth a look, for a winding medieval layout, a corner tower, cobblestones, a Baroque house. Less than ten years ago this area had an incurably bad reputation. Exemplary restoration and a gradual realisation of the city’s tourist potential (inaugurated with the status of European capital of culture in 1995) have transformed the district.
 
Rue Sigefroi then leads to the Chemin de la Corniche, also nicknamed “Europe’s most beautiful balcony”. This is no hackneyed expression, since the view from here is breathtaking, from the bottom of the valley to the horizon. Cliffs, the ruins of Luxembourg castle, small terraced gardens, Neumünster Abbey and the remains of the old walls make up a magnificent tableau.
 
Neumünster Abbey Cultural Centre
Neumünster Abbey was built by the Benedictines in the 16th century. After the French Revolution, the complex was used in turn as an orphanage, military hospital and lastly as a men’s prison (one of the most grim in Europe, it is said) until 1984. Following an exemplary restoration, the place became a cultural centre where there is always something going on, a play, film screening, photo or art exhibition. Every Sunday morning, the locals crowd in for the jazz brunch. The setting is enchanting, at the edge of the river Alzette, facing cliffs pierced with tunnels by the Austrian garrisons…
 
On the Kirchberg plateau
The Luxembourg that we all know (from television) – that of the European institutions, banks and big company headquarters – is here. According to the locals, in the evening, this district – much of it developed by Ricardo Bofill – is sorely lacking in atmosphere. But it is nevertheless worth coming here to see two architectural masterpieces. First, Christian de Portzamparc’s Philharmonie, a superb white structure surrounded by a forest of lofty columns. Inside, this curved building houses two concert halls, one with 2,000 seats and another specially dedicated to chamber music, where the quality of the acoustics vies with the elegance of the place. After a concert, you can enjoy dinner at the Philarmonie’s restaurant, Papila (see our article).
 
A visit to the Musée d’Art moderne Grand-Duc Jean (MUDAM,museum of modern art) built by Ieoh Ming Pei (architect of the Pyramide du Louvre), which opened in June 2006, is an absolute must. This immaculately white monumental structure is presented as the continuation of the remains of the Trois Glands (Three Acorns) fortress, which was part of the old Fort Thüngen designed by Vauban. Moreover, you have to cross the old dry moat to enter the MUDAM. The place is worth a visit as much for its vast interior spaces, often lit by glass roofs, as for its content: there are not really any permanent collections, but instead works that are intended to be presented in rotation. In the context of Luxembourg 2007, the museum is presenting a vast retrospective of Michel Majérus, a young painter from Luxembourg whose premature death deprived him of much-deserved recognition.
 
The casino: a centre of contemporary art in the heart of the city
Built in 1882, this old casino was for a long time the centre of social life in Luxembourg. Franz Liszt, on a visit to his Hungarian painter friend Mihály Munkácsy, gave his last concert here on 19th July 1886. Forum of Contemporary Art since 1995, the Casino dedicates itself to creation with a lot of energy, ambition and pedagogy.
 
 
PRACTICAL INFORMATION
 
Where to stay
Parc Beaux-Arts Hotel
1, rue Sigefroi
2536 Luxembourg.
Tel.: +352 44 23 23 1
This charming hotel next to the National Museum of History and Art offers ten beautiful suites. Peaceful and cosy, it enjoys an ideal location right at the heart of the old town, and some of the rooms look onto the backyard of the Ducal Palace.
Very good breakfast and an unusually warm welcome.
 
Luxembourg Tourist Office in London
122 Regent Street
London W1B 5SA
Tel.: 020 7434 2800
Fax.: 020 7734 1205
www.luxembourg.co.uk
 
Luxembourg 2007 tourist information centre
Place Guillaume II
B.P. 2470
1260 Luxembourg
Tel.: +352 2688 2007
 
National Tourist Office
Gare centrale
B.P. 1001
1010 Luxembourg
Tel.: + 352 42 82 82 20
 
Philharmonie Luxembourg
Grande-Duchesse Joséphine-Charlotte
Public concert hall
1, place de l’Europe
L-1499 Luxembourg.
Tel.: +352 26 02 27-1
Fax.: +352 26 02 27-990
 
MUDAM Luxembourg
Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean
3, Parc Dräi Eechelen
L-1499 Luxembourg
Tel.: +352 45 37 85-960
 
Casino Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain
41, rue Notre-Dame
L - 2240 Luxembourg
Tel.: +352 22 50 45
Fax: +352 22 95 95

This forgotten city in the country, leafy and romantic with its rivers and countless remnants of fortifications, easily merits a weekend.

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